James Brown was brought up on a farm in Scotland but has spent most of his adult life in East Anglia. He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University (1979-82), beginning by studying physics and chemistry and finishing by specialising in population genetics. En route, he was introduced to the wonders of plant pathogens and fungi in particular by the teaching of John Rishbeth and Harry Hudson. After doing voluntary work in India and Nepal, he studied for his PhD at the Plant Breeding Institute in Cambridge (1984-8) and won a Research Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge (1987). He was then appointed to a project leader position at the Institutes of Plant Science Research (1989), now part of the John Innes Centre, Norwich, where he has remained since.
His research has concerned the adaptation of fungal pathogens to crops, including virulence on plant varieties and insensitivity to fungicides, and improving methods of breeding plants for disease resistance. Diseases he and his colleagues have studied include powdery mildew of barley, wheat and cucurbits, Septoria tritici blotch of wheat, yellow rust of wheat and most recently Ramularia leaf spot of barley. He has also used computer simulations, mathematical models and Arabidopsis as model systems. In his current research, he is applying genetics to investigate complex problems in controlling plant disease: trade-offs which limit the potential of breeding for disease resistance, the use of association genetics to broaden the genetic basis of resistance and the evolution of gene families of pathogen effectors. He was awarded the Research Medal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England in 2010.
He is currently associate head of the Department of Disease and Stress Biology at the John Innes Centre. His other professional activities include being Chairman of the European and Mediterranean Cereal Rust Foundation, Chairman of the UK Cereal Pathogen Virulence Survey, pathology specialist on the Crop Evaluation Wheat Committee, member of BBSRC committees and member of editorial boards of journals, including Plant Pathology.
Away from work, his interests include canoeing and cycling, especially with his two sons, and playing the bagpipes. His application to keep rare breeds of pig in his garden has been peer-reviewed by his wife and decisively rejected.